Practice what you Preach: Reclaiming religious language for the Left

by Sam Bright

In our increasingly secular world, it is somewhat unfashionable to quote the Bible. In a coup for Marx, otherwise largely vanquished by capitalist thought, his assertion that ‘religion is the opium of the masses’ has been accepted as mainstream liberal thought. A crutch, a tool for fools, some politicians simply ‘don’t do it’ (Tony Blair, via Alastair Campbell). A caricature of religion is called upon to justify Islamic terrorism, Zionist expansionism, and the suppression of homosexuality by the ‘religious right’ in a manner that would seem to justify Marx’s revulsion.

Religion, however, still has much to teach us, and its powerful language should be reclaimed by the progressive political left. As David Cameron recently declared in his speech on the King James Bible: ‘the Bible provides a defining influence on the formation of the first welfare state’. 

Mr Cameron went on to list a number of charities whose work has been inspired by Biblical ideals, whilst paying little further attention to how those ideals should inspire his own government. Yet in the words of Archbishop John Sentamu, ‘we should not be relying only on charity alone to solve the problems society faces, we should be campaigning for justice in the structures that preserve and perpetuate unfairness’. As he goes on to say,

We have created a situation where many people live in relative poverty, while others have far more than they can ever hope to spend. In fact, the divide between the wages of the rich and the poor is growing in nearly all of the world’s leading economies

I would pull two thoughts out of those comments.

Firstly, the moral heritage we have been endowed by our society’s Christian background demands that our politicians seek justice throughout society. As Christ is reported to have said: ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’. A great guide to both personal behaviour and political philosophy which, though capable of numerous nuanced interpretations, may be unpacked in the following manner. How should I treat this homeless guy selling the Big Issue? Place myself in his shoes, and ask how I would expect to be treated. How should our welfare system treat the long term unemployed? Place myself in their shoes, and ask how I would expect to be treated. In either case, would I expect to receive something for nothing? So long as I had something to give, probably not. But in both cases I would expect to be treated fairly and justly, not penalised where I have done little wrong, and given the helping hand I need to give myself the same opportunities enjoyed by others. This is something that, as the Archbishop suggests, should not only be reflected in our personal charitable deeds but also in the structure of society.

Secondly, we should ask exactly who are those neighbours whom we love? Capitalism has seen the rise of the phenomenon of globalisation; yet too often this has been a globalisation of exploitation and not of compassion. First European empires and then multinational corporations have gone overseas not to spread their wisdom and share in the proceeds of development, but to make use of foreign resources available at a fraction of the cost at which they can be obtained locally. Aid has been tainted by conditionality, tying beneficiaries into purchasing, for example, British arms, which have gone on to fuel regional conflicts. This is wrong. No man is an island and, despite our instincts as a country, nor is any nation. We are part of an international community in which our neighbour need not reside in the same street, city or State as ourselves. Our neighbours are all of those with whom we and our society interacts: and in a globalised community, in which we reap the benefits of trade with people across the developed and developing worlds, we have a responsibility to consider the developmental needs of those with whom we deal. In particular, as the Archbishop suggests, we should help tackle the growing gulf between rich and poor in all economies. This may mean taking measures to tackle the pervasive corruption found in China and Russia. It also means ensuring that we provide the necessary disaster relief to ensure that the poorest do not suffer disproportionately in response to climactic, geological, or man-made catastrophes (as recentlyhighlighted by Andrew Mitchell MP, the UK Secretary for International Development),

Religious language has, for too long, been the preserve of the right. In his semi-retirement, Tony Blair has established a ‘Faith Foundation’ to demonstrate “The values of respect, justice and compassion that our great religions share has never been more relevant or important to bring people together to build a better world”. This is laudable, but is too late. The progressive political left needs to shake off the ghost of Marx and reclaim the emotive power of religious language, to further the cause of equality and justice. Some of the most powerful arguments for respecting socio-economic rights may be found in our religious texts, and we should not shrink from them.

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